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Much Ado About Nothing – Opera House, Manchester

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie

This collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Chichester Festival Theatre enjoys a brief residency in Manchester before moving to the West End. It’s paired with Love’s Labour’s Lost, sharing cast and creatives, as well as set and period setting. But while the fading Edwardian era is common to both plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost” basks in the last summer of peace before the deluge of the First World War; its companion piece sets its narrative against the aftermath of that inundation.

The two plays were written several years apart, and the later play displays the increasing assurance and command of his material that Shakespeare was developing. The plot of Much Ado About Nothing has more complexity than its predecessor, the language is less mannered, and the characters have more depth. But there are common threads too, and the RSC’s deliberate yoking of the two pieces brings some of these to the fore. In particular, the love wars between Benedick and Beatrice that escalate the earlier skirmishes of Berowne and Rosaline.

Don Pedro and his officers, returning victorious from war, are hosted by Leonato and his household, including his daughter. Hero, and niece. Beatrice. Hero is quickly betrothed to the lovestruck warrior Claudio, while Benedick and Beatrice engage in a battle of wits, each claiming to have no interest in marrying anyone. Their friends make them believe that each loves the other, and they prove readily besotted. Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John, a self-confessed malcontent, contrives to damage Hero’s reputation and destroy the proposed nuptials. The plot is foiled through the intervention of the local village idiot militia, led by the hyperbolic constable Dogberry. Don John’s treachery is revealed; Hero, who had faked her own death, is restored to her lover Claudio, and Benedick and Beatrice make up the happy number in the marriage stakes.

Unlike Love’s Labour’s Lost, this play has a villain, and his villainy comes close to destroying the happiness of the lovers and their families: Claudio and Benedick, previously firm friends, seem set to face one another in a duel; a grief-stricken Don Pedro almost disowns Hero for her apparent wantonness; Leonato and his brother Antonio threaten physical violence on Don Pedro and Claudio. Discord  threatens to disturb the harmony of the comedy universe. On a different day, the same plot devices could have produced a revenge tragedy. Here, they provide the trials through which our heroes prove their mettle and merit their rewards.

Much Ado features the same cast as Love’s Labour’s Lost, often thrown into very different roles. This is not the case for Edward Bennett, who transforms the witty Berowne into the misogynistic Benedick; or for Lisa Dillon, whose Rosaline has, even more backbone as Beatrice. Nick Haverson, who gurns to great effect as Costard, adds extra dimensions of absurdity as the incompetent Dogberry, including some brilliant clowning during the arraignment of the conspirators. Steven Pacey, as Leonato, has a tragic scope with the denouncement of Hero, which he attains with considerable pathos.

In keeping with the darker mood of the later play, the seasons have moved on from summer to winter. So while the basic elements of the set are shared, Much Ado reflects the impending Christmas with an enormous decorated tree, which provides Benedick with a convenient but hazardous hiding place. The seasonal shift also allows for a convenient and suitably ethereal fall of snowflakes as Claudio mourns the supposed death of Hero.

Music is a strong force connecting the two plays and also highlighting some of their distinctiveness; hence Much Ado has more cause to look to minor chords and lamentations. Even the incidental music, used again to great effect, carries more sombre tones as tragedy threatens to engulf comedy. We are also reminded of how the Great War ushered in many social and cultural changes. Women’s ankles are on display, and the formal sequence dances of Love’s Labour’s Lost, are giving way to flappers and the jazz age. After a stunning choral finale courtesy of Christopher Marlowe’s sonnet, Come Live with me and be my Love, the cast let rip with dance moves from the Charleston era.

Much Ado is a more rounded, three-dimensional work than Love’s Labour’s Lost. It has more subtlety. Which is perhaps why some of the clowning (not always by the “rude mechanicals”) seems misplaced or excessive. This is especially true of Benedick’s mishap with the fairy lights on the Christmas tree. While not unfunny in itself, it perhaps played for an easy laugh. Every other aspect of the production sets the bar so high that it almost draws the focus to the few areas where the tone may slip a little too far.

Runs  until 3 December 2016 | Image: Manuel Harlan


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